Twelve years ago, James Cameron's last film, Titanic, was released to little fanfare. You might not believe that and I shouldn't say little, as it debuted at number one, but it actually took weeks for the film to build into the "must-see" event of early 1998. Word of mouth and incredibly broad appeal kept it at the top of the charts for months. Women flocked to the love story and Leonardo DiCaprio's charm...men waited for a couple hours to see the gee-whiz special effects as the ship sinks (and maybe Kate Winslet's breasts).
I waited years before seeing it and was admittedly underwhelmed. It's a good movie, sure, but not one I'd have seen multiple times in the theatre. I guess I'm not a softy (not always, anyway) and if I wanted Cameron special effects brilliance, I'll revisit the Terminator films, Aliens...hell, even The Abyss.
I appreciate that Cameron took some time making his next film and that he chose to return to his sci-fi roots rather than make another flick sure to appease the masses. (As a coworker put it, "aren't you disturbed by the fact that the people in this movie are blue?") He claimed that, in part, he was waiting for special effects to get where he needed them...apparently Gollum in The Lord of the Rings was the tipping point.
So now we get Avatar, an epic that relies heavily on it's effects wrapped in an eco-friendly plot about the greed of man and the kill-first military mentality. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a crippled vet who arrives on the planet Pandora determined to matter again by fulfilling his brother's commitment to assist in a project to develop relationships with the native humanoids, the Na'vi.
The story works quickly as we get an overview of the situation. The Na'vi are sitting on top of a deep vein of an incredibly valuable mineral. The industrial machine, in conjunction with a gung-ho military, wants to plow right in (literally strip-mining and destroying the forests), but the scientists would like some time to attempt peaceful diplomacy with the indigenous. Jake's asked to slide his consciousness into a Na'vi body to assist, but he's also expected to provide intel for his Colonel.
The plot predictably follows Jake as he becomes embedded in the tribe (who refer to themselves as "The People") and finds it harder and harder to help those who wish to exploit them. He learns their ways, becomes enamored of their spirituality (very "earth mother") and even falls in love. Again, nothing new or unexpected here.
Where Avatar sells itself and leaves an impression is in it's beautifully rendered special effects work. I'd venture to say that some 85-90% of the film is digitally constructed. It's not flawless effects, but believable enough that you'll eventually fall into the mystique of a beautiful world filled with exotic fauna and creatures both deadly and exciting. I did not see the film in 3D, so I can't speak to those charms, though they were impressive in the preview I saw months ago. The Na'vi themselves are realized with grace and realism, capturing just enough of the look of the source actor and yet maintaining an alien quality (I love that Sigourney Weaver's avatar has her sleepy eyes).
Much like Titanic, the first couple hours of the movie are occasionally slow before the action really kicks in. The military forces on the planet eventually move to take the Na'vi land by force and the ensuing battle is truly masterful. It's grandiose and often breath-taking.
Avatar will not be the slow-burn success of Cameron's last film and it might even struggle to recoup it's production costs (rumored around $300 million), but it's a welcome addition to his resume and a film that should be experienced on the big screen (though I suspect it will be dazzling on Blu-ray, too).